Alton Purnell will always be best-known as a member of George Lewis' Ragtime Band, providing memorable introductions, basic but swinging solos and solid work in the ensembles. Purnell worked as a singer before becoming a professional pianist in his native New Orleans in 1928 and during the next decade he played with Isaiah Morgan, Alphonse Picou, "Big Eye" Louis Nelson, Sidney Desvigne's big band and Cousin Joe among many others. Although obviously not able to be part of a brass band, Purnell played fairly steadily in New Orleans, gigging at local clubs and cabarets. He became part of Bunk Johnson's group in 1945 where he met up with George Lewis. After Bunk broke up the band in 1946, Purnell returned to New Orleans but he soon was an important part of Lewis' group. In the 1950's he toured the world with Lewis and appeared on many recordings including the definitive version of "The Saints." In 1957 Purnell moved to Los Angeles where he played with Teddy Buckner, the ironically titled Young Men From New Orleans, Joe Darensbourg, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard and Ben Pollack. In the 1960's Purnell often toured as a guest soloist and later in the decade he was a member of the Legends Of Jazz. His last 20 years were primarily spent with pickup bands where his likable and joyous style was always welcome. As a leader, Alton Purnell recorded for Warner Bros. (1958), 77, Dixie, the Danish CSA label, the French Pragmaphone label, Alligator Jazz and GHB.
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